Memorial Center Design Clears Hurdle

A rendering of an exhibition at the proposed Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center. The estimated cost of the center is $75 million to $100 million.
A rendering of an exhibition at the proposed Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center. The estimated cost of the center is $75 million to $100 million. (Ralph Appelbaum Associates)
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 19, 2007

The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts gave conditional approval yesterday to the design concept for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center, an underground museum and educational complex on the Mall near the Lincoln Memorial.

The commission, which advises the government on architecture in the capital, gave the nod, despite concerns about the size of the facility and its location across the street from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. One commissioner worried that the center might dilute the emotional impact of the Wall.

In 2003, Congress approved construction of the center on 5.2 acres west of the Wall and just north of the Lincoln Memorial. The National Capital Planning Commission approved the site last year.

In May, officials announced that the center would feature, among other things, a wall of photos of the war's dead and an artifact collection.

Yesterday brought the first detailed look at the preliminary design concept preferred by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which is building the center, and the National Park Service, which will operate it.

The design, by the New York City firm of Polshek Partnership Architects, calls for a 34,100-square-foot structure dug two stories into the ground and reached by a 280-foot-long entrance ramp. There would be a sunken courtyard, a facade of dark stone and glass and perhaps a reflecting pool.

Inside would be a bookstore and a resource facility in addition to multiple levels of displays, including photographs, a timeline and some of the 100,000 artifacts that have been left at the Wall, which marks the 25th anniversary of its dedication next month.

The idea is "to teach America's youth about citizenship, duty, loyalty, honor," said Jan C. Scruggs, president and founder of the memorial fund, who was present but did not testify yesterday.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a "shrine, more than a monument," he said, and needs the center close by to provide context for a fading era.

The fund has raised $14 million of the estimated $75 million to $100 million cost of the center. Fund officials have said the full cost must be raised before construction can start. Groundbreaking is expected in 2010, with completion 18 months later.

Ann Sherman-Wolcott of York, Pa., whose son, Rex, was killed at age 18 in Vietnam in 1969, told the six commissioners yesterday that she feared she would not live to see the center built. "Please, don't deprive me of that honor," she said.

Earl A. Powell III, the commission chairman, noted that the commission was not meeting to approve the project, which had been approved already, only the design concept. "It is an odd circumstance for us to vote for a [project] that has been effectively pre-approved by a higher authority," he said.

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